This blog (and my ability to pay rent) is supported by my Patreon, where subscribers get exclusive content. This is an excerpt of a much (much much) longer article that is available on the Patreon to subscribers at the $10 and above level. To read the whole thing, support Cinema Sangha at Patreon.com/cinemasangha.
Everybody knows that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best in the franchise. And everybody loves the fun and silly vibe of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. But Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released 35 years ago this week, is stuck in this terrible underappreciated place, the movie that paved the way for the concept “the odd numbered ones are bad,” and is almost totally dismissed. But it shouldn’t be! Search for Spock is great, if flawed, and it works remarkably well as a reaction to the darkness that defines Khan.
One part heist film, one part men-on-a-mission movie, one part sweeping epic romance, Search for Spock is the most intimate Star Trek movie ever made. The scale of these films kept reducing; Star Trek: The Motion Picture includes a 2001-riffing journey through psychedelic imagery, while Khan brings the story down to a beef between two old enemies centered around a planet-destroying superweapon. But Search for Spock goes even smaller, because there are only personal stakes here. In TMP V’ger threatened Earth, while in Khanthe Genesis Device was a threat to all life in the galaxy. But by the time we get to Spock, we learn the Genesis Device doesn’t really work. Yes, it’s a powerful destructive force, but in the world of Trek it’s not clear how important that is or isn’t (couldn’t the Klingons destroy a planet from orbit anyway if they wanted to?). No, what’s at stake in Spock is Spock himself, and he doesn’t hold some key to stopping a threat or the answer to a riddle that must be solved; he is being saved simply because he is Spock, and he is loved.
Some of the sense of a tighter scale comes from the fact that the movie is shot exclusively on soundstages. While Khan had also been stagebound, that was a submarine movie and so the sets felt right. But much of Spock takes place on the surface of the Genesis Planet, a surface that is home to wildly divergent biomes that are right next door to each other. Characters travel from a steamy jungle to a frozen tundra in a few miles, but the stagey nature of it all makes it feel like they just left the soundstage, made a right and entered the next soundstage over. I think this staginess is part of what has earned Spock its devalued place in the canon, but if you can embrace the smallness of it, this quality actually enhances the intimacy. The focus is on the characters and the emotions, not on the landscapes.
I guess I should take a step back and remind you just what this movie is about, since my premise here is that it’s undervalued and kind of forgotten. Maybe you haven’t seen it in years and years!
Search for Spock picks up in the almost immediate aftermath of Wrath of Khan. The Enterprise, badly damaged in the Battle of the Mutara Nebula, is limping back to Earth. David Marcus, Kirk’s long-lost son, is teamed up with Saavik to investigate the newly-formed Genesis Planet, which has become the final resting place for Spock’s corpse. Meanwhile, Dr. McCoy, unwittingly the host of Spock’s katra, or soul, is starting to crack up from the pressure of having a green-blooded bastard living inside his head.
After a visit from Sarek, Spock’s dad, it becomes clear to Kirk and Company that they have to bring McCoy to the Genesis Planet, and that both the doctor and the Vulcan are, in their own way, in terrible pain. But Starfleet isn’t so hot on the idea of sending anyone to the now-restricted planet, and so Kirk hatches a plan to spring McCoy from the booby hatch, where he’s ended up, steal the Enterprise and do what must be done.
Meanwhile Saavik and David realize that the Genesis Planet is fucked. David used something called protomatter when designing the Genesis Device because he couldn’t get the system to work without it. The problem is that protomatter is some kind of garbage filler material that is denounced by 23rd century science, and with good reason – it is accelerating the life of the Genesis Planet. It was created in minutes, and it is fast-forwarding through its entire lifecycle, hurtling towards self-destruction.
But that protomatter also has a strange impact on the corpse of Spock. It seems that somehow – and as far as I know there has never been an adequate explanation for how any of this works – after Spock’s body landed on the Genesis Planet in its torpedo tube casket the corpse was reduced to the state of infancy. Alive, I should add – it didn’t turn into a dead infant but a live one. And the protomatter that is accelerating the aging of the planet is doing the same to Spock, who is rushing through all of his developmental stages, including the very wild Vulcan puberty, wherein Vulcans must have sex or die.
As if all of this wasn’t enough to deal with, the Klingons have gotten wind of the Genesis Device and a Bird of Prey captained by none other than Doc Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd, shows up and explodes the science ship on which Saavik and David were serving. Luckily those two were planetside with Young Spock while this happened, so they survived… for the time being. The Klingons demand the answers to the Genesis Planet, despite the whole thing destroying itself around them.
Search for Spock picks up some of the themes of Khan and reverses them nicely. Khan was all about Kirk feeling old (he is about 52 in that movie, younger than both Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr today), and Spock tackles this by showing just how spry the old folks can be, and just how unreliable the next generation is. In the film the Enterprise, broken and bloody, hobbles into Spacedock and sees the Excelsior, the next big advance in starships. Supposedly boasting transwarp drive, it’s set to make the Constitution Class and all other known starships absolutely obsolete. It’s the future staring into the face of the fogeys on the bridge of the Enterprise, and yet they are able to best that future using their experience. Scotty steals a couple of screws and chips out of the Excelsior’s computers, rendering the whole ship inert, and when the crew steals the Enterprise they just sail away from the dead-in-space supership. It’s a generation gap in action, and the reversal of Kirk’s “I feel young” from the end of the last movie. Their oldness empowers them here.
But most of all Spock reverses Khan’s famous “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” And it doesn’t just do it as subtext – “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many” is spoken aloud in this movie. It allows the film to engage in an interesting conversation with its predecessor about what it truly means to do the right thing. What I like is that both answers are right – Spock is correct to sacrifice his life for his friends, while his friends are correct to sacrifice their livelihoods and possibly freedom for him. Sacrifice is holy and correct, whether done for many or for one.
There is something that nags at me about the sacrifices made for Spock, though (and they get big later in the film, but let’s stick with livelihood and freedom) – would these characters do the same for Scotty? They certainly had his back in the original series when the ghost of Jack the Ripper was killing women on a pleasure planet and Scotty was a suspect (don’t ask), but would they go this far? Would they do this for Sulu? Hell, the crew doesn’t even bring Uhura along to the Genesis Planet!
Anyway, everybody understands that Spock is special – he’s part of the Big Three triumvirate that defines this crew. And so they’re willing to make these sacrifices for him. But nobody sacrifices as much as Kirk, and this, I think, is the key to the sweeping love story.
I always looked at the Kirk/Spock shipping askance; K/S is the original fandom ship, it’s ground zero for all that followed, but I always thought it was silly. Maybe I was stuck in a hetero thought process, or maybe I was stuck in a sexualized binary vision of love and romance, but something has changed and my latest viewing of Spock really makes it clear that Kirk is in love with Spock. Deeply, madly, truly in love with him.
And no, this isn’t just a sexualizing of a deeply affectionate male relationship. I believe we need more non-sexualized affectionate male friendships in fiction. But there is so much more going on in Search for Spock than just a common friendship, even a great one. What Kirk does in this movie – what he sacrifices – is enormous, life-changing, and impossibly grand. It isn’t just that he throws away his career (I’m not sure Kirk really gives a shit about his career), it’s that he loses his son and his ship, that he places Spock and his love for Spock above those things.
Read the rest by subscribing at the $10 level at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha!